Baca County History

by the Plainsman Herald

“Ten Nights in a Bar Room” by the Boston Amateur Dramatic Troupe: Theatre in 1880s Southeast Colorado


The Boston Amateur Dramatic troupe reproduced “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” at the Murray hall last Friday night.  The weather was intensely disagreeable, and the crowd correspondingly small.  There were not more than 150 people present.  The troupe made a marked improvement over their first effort. The Citizen (Trinidad Colorado) 13 Jan 1888

The play “Ten Nights in a Bar Room,” is based on an 1854 novel, “Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There” written by American author Timothy Shay Arthur

The play “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” was used to promote prohibition to large audiences. In the 1850s, sales of this book were second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ten Nights in a Bar-room was a financial success for Arthur so the novel transferred to play format. The play based on the novel continued to be popular even after prohibition in the United States, although it was often presented as a parody.

Ten Nights in a Bar Room was also a part of the history of Old Boston, Colorado.  This footnote in the history of old Boston has gone mostly unnoticed and might seem a little odd given the sometimes excessive consumption of alcohol in some of these Wild West Towns such as Old Boston.  Sitting in southeast Colorado fifteen miles from Kansas and fifteen miles from the neutral strip (now the Oklahoma Panhandle) Boston was a far bigger draw for riff raff and outlaws than for culture and civility.

The establishment of the Boston Amateur Dramatic Troupe is another attempt by the Boston town founders to build a civil and cultured existence in an environment that seemed to produce anything but civility. A play with a storyline of temperance, is not one you might expect from the rough and tumble characters assembled in the town of Old Boston. Their attempts at taming the “noted burying ground” as it was described in the following news clipping seems like a futile exercise as we look back with 20/20 hindsight. 

Noted Burying Ground
Finney County Democrat (Garden City, Kansas) 15 Dec 1888

The novel version of Ten Nights in a Bar Room is presented by an unnamed narrator who makes an annual visit to the fictional town of Cedarville. On his first visit, he stops at the new tavern, the Sickle and Sheaf. The proprietor, Simon Slade, is a former miller who gave up the trade for the more lucrative tavern. The business is a family affair, with Slade’s wife Ann, son Frank, and daughter Flora assisting him. The narrator also observes the town drunk, Joe Morgan. The father of a loving wife and family, he meets his moral downfall when introduced to alcohol. Morgan becomes an alcoholic and spends most of his time at a bar. One day, his daughter begs him to return to his family. He ignores her desires until she is hit in the head by a flying glass as she goes to retrieve her father. Slade had thrown the tumbler at Morgan so, to a degree, her death is on his hands. On her deathbed, the daughter begs Morgan to abandon alcohol, to which he agrees. The novel progresses through the ruinous fall of more characters all at the hands of hard drink and other vices (gambling becomes another major reform notion in the text). Shay spends some time discussing corruption in politics with the corrupt “rum party” candidate from Cedarville, Judge Lyman. The narrator notes how even the drinkers in the story call for “the Maine Law“ which will prohibit alcohol from being so temptingly available. The novel closes with the death of Simon Slade, already mutilated from an earlier riotous sequence of murders and mob mentality, at the hands of his son. The two had gotten into a drunken argument and Frank strikes his father in the head with a bottle. In the final scene the narrator sees the post with the once pristine and now gross and rotten Sickle and Sheaf totem chopped down after the town’s moral fiber showed itself in a series of resolutions that led to the destruction of all the alcohol on the premises.

Illustration from an 1882 edition of  “Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There” 

Several news clippings discuss the theatrical production of Ten Nights in a bar room put on by the Boston, Colorado amateur dramatic troupe.   Examples are shown below, 

The Boston Amateur Dramatic Troupe played “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” at Vilas last Tuesday night.  The proceeds were about $18.  They will give the same play at Richfield next Thursday night.  The troupe is making itself quite famous.  –The Citizen (Trinidad Colorado) 18 Jan 1888 

In the news clipping below, Boston Banner Newspaper Editor, George Daniels, plays the part of Simon Switzel, however as there was no character with the name Switzel, they are likely referencing the character, Simon Slade.

The Leader-Democrat (Richfield, Kansas) 28 Jan 1888
The Democratic Principle (Syracuse, Kansas) · Wed, Dec 14, 1887

The most interesting reference to the play is in the January 4, 1888 edition of the Trinidad Citizen newspaper.  Ten Nights in a Bar Room was the play the Boston Dramatic Troupe was putting on after the shooting of Henry Savoie, in the streets of Old Boston, by Prairie Cattle Company Regulator/ Deputy Sheriff Big Bill Thompson.  The Citizen tells us,  

Excitement now about subsided since the burial of Savoie. William Thompson and Ben Darnell left here for Vilas this morning.  They have softened public feeling to a considerable extent by their amicable conduct while here.  Their statement and explanation were very different from Savoies’ They came in on Saturday evening and rough time was expected on account of several rumours which had gained credence since they left several days before for Trinidad.  One of them was to the effect that the editor of the Boston Banner would be brought to terms for publishing Savoie’s ante mortem statement with comments.  The play  “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” was being acted when they arrived and about thirty well armed deputy marshals were placed in the hall to quell any riot which might arise.  Word was repeatedly sent to the editor that he would be shot on the stage (he was playing the part of Swiehel.) Nothing happened, however, and at last the people are getting down to business again. The Citizen (Trinidad Colorado) 4 Jan 1888.   NOTE:  Swiehel was likely to reference the Ten Nights in a Bar Room character Simon Slade. 

Other towns in the boomtown era such as Wilde, Springfield, and Holmes City played on the wild nature of towns such as Boston, Minneapolis, Vilas, and Carrizo when recruiting homesteaders and investors. They included statements in their town advertisements such as the following:

“WILDE A PROHIBITION TOWN. While Colorado is not a prohibition State, there are a number of noted towns like Manitou Springs, Greeley, etc., which have adopted the method of inserting a clause in all deeds forever prohibiting the sale of intoxicants, and wherever this method has been adopted and adhered to on the part of the town projectors, it has proved eminently successful. Manitou Springs is noted as one of the most cultured, refined and moral cities in the United States, whether east or west; and it owes it to the one thing of prohibition, which has excluded the whiskey element, and attracted a class of people in favor of temperance, schools and churches. The three town companies of Wilde, Springfield and Holmes in joint meeting adopted the prohibition plan for all three towns, for which are facetiously called dry towns, cognomen* the projectors are only too willing to adopt.

Boston did not appear to have such an inclination to limit alcohol consumption…or did they?  The production of Ten Nights in a Bar Room, a prohibition play,  is another event which seems contrary to the often wild events occurring in that town.  The town’s  documented efforts at civility and culture with a community theatrical troupe, a community baseball team  and a community band led by Freeman Jess Newton and Jennings were admirable. However, it seems the town founders efforts at bringing civilized behavior to that place fell short.  Maybe a couple different twists of fate and Boston, Colorado could  have become the mecca of the plains the founders dreamed about.

As a Side Note…Forney Jennings aka Al Jennings later went on to star and  consult in many early silent westerns.  Check out the following blog post: Al Jennings 1908 silent western: “The Bank Robbery’”

To see a map of the 1880s boom towns mentioned in this post click here: Boom Town Maps

This post was originally published in the Plainsman Herald (Springfield, CO) Spring 2020

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